Friday, August 6, 2010

☞ READ: Retrofitting Urban Renewal Plans

There's been a lot of interest on the topic of correcting the superblock Urban Renewal plans that have decimated so many city neighborhoods in the mid 20th century. The top image comes from the November 2009 City Limits article that reported on a way to retrofit the highly dense Tower in the Park blocks of the Lower East Side. Graduate students in the urban planning program from the University of Michigan chose this neighborhood because it had one of the most dense concentrations of projects in the country and also since the surrounding tenement neighborhood has transformed drastically in recent years. The red buildings in the top image show the various mix-use construction that would fill in most of the unused land around the housing projects (and fancifully off-shore). Most notable are the low-level buildings lining Delancey Street before the Williambsburg Bridge since many storefronts would be added to the diagonally positioned housing towers.

The end goal would be to preserve the older buildings, develop a sustainable, mix-income community and restore the street life that previously existed decades ago. This Michigan concept of planning is similar to the city's current agenda for various parts of the city, especially since NYCHA has struggled with a heavy deficit over the past decade. Other similar, project-dense neighborhoods that the article points out include Harlem, Chelsea, the Upper West Side, Fort Green, Red Hook and Long Island City. Read more in the City Limits article: LINK. The last image is from a recent article in the New York Times that reports on how one Chelsea housing project's open space is currently being transformed: LINK. We will cover a much larger NYC retrofitting development in the following weeks. Read our past post on the Failure of the Radiant City: LINK. Click on images to enlarge for detail.


  1. This is encouraging to see the projects as not untouchable, being an acknowledged disaster on so many levels the projects are finally being addressed, there is hope at last.

  2. Lower & Middle income people have been largely priced out of lots of areas of Manhattan (WV, UES, Tribeca, etc) and those areas have not suffered much. Well educated professionals get priced out of Harlem. Its happens, people cope with fiscal realities, settle and craft a life else where, many propser better than their counterparts in Manhattan! For every argument on the benefits and why Manhattan needs to subsidize housing, an argument can be made on how people just might be better of vacating Manhattan.

    From what I have seen over the decades, low and middle income people in Manhattan with some form of subsidized housing or not spend 5, 10, 15, and 20 years here and never really get ahead (economically). The costs of Manhattan, keeping up with the Jones's, whatever, I am sure you all have seen it. I also know people that recognized living in Manhattan likely meant "just getting by" for the next 10+ years and relocated to lower cost places, some bought homes elsewhere and simply commuted to the city for work. Some have less stress, less pressure, they developed whole lives as opposed to just working all the time (common in Manhattan) and being priced out of Manhattan was the best thing that ever happened to them.

    I've lived here too long, I've seen too much. I don't think we (society) are doing people any favor by enabling them to live in Manhattan and subsidizing their housing. It all starts from this false notion that we absolutely must engineer housing to enable people that earn $50K or $75K to live where the open market requires you to minimally earn $100K+.

  3. Thanks for this and earlier related posts, Ulysses. They seem to promote mostly positive, solution-oriented discussions.

    To Reynolds 93: I am a long-term resident like yourself, who lived in Greenwich Village as it transformed from a vibrant, diverse community of the wealthy living side-by-side with artists, intellectuals, students, entry-level professionals and other low-income residents, to become a boring yuppie enclave. I say that the benefit of having low and even no-income people in Manhattan accrues to all Manhattan residents. It keeps us in touch with the human condition, teaches us tolerance, offers us opportunities to learn compassion and exposes us to the myriad artistic and social contributions that have nothing to do with money. If we are not doing those people a favor; at least we are keeping ourselves from becoming an isolated island of materialistic, boring privilege.

  4. I don't want to live in a neighbouhood where people are all one colour, all the same sexual orientation, all the same religion, the same age demographic or have the same income level. How boring would that be? Might as well live in Iowa. (sorry, Iowa, no disrespect)

    According to Reynolds93 I shouldn't be living here. And yet here I am, owning my building and receiving no subsidies from anyone. And being a little ray of sunshine brightening the lives of all I meet.

  5. While there appears to be plenty of intellectual convergence around the idea of developing the underutilized NYCHA land, there has been little to no action on this idea to date.

    HB readers, let's brainstorm. What can we do to catalyze real action on these ideas (or better ideas if anyone has any)? Bloomberg is clearly a pro-development mayor, and this is a concept he has endorsed repeatedly. I fear that this monumental opportunity to improve Harlem for the better could be lost forever if the current mayor is not more aggressively incentivized to act.

  6. Practicing fiscal responsibility does not mean or equate to being materialistic, privileged, or a snob. We have minimal standards in all aspect of life, thresholds for environments (for reasons). Would you argue high school drop outs or D students lacking basic reading and writing skills be allowed to enter Columbia or Harvard. Manhattan is a bigtime rat race, it's competitive, it's hard, and you spend 10 yrs here earning $75K and never get ahead economically (even with subsidized housing). It baffles me how the notion of being priced out of Manhattan is such a horrible forbidden sentence that we should prevent people from having to contend with...

  7. Wow @Reynolds. Your Manhattan sounds like one big misery. There would be almost no writers or musicians, artsts or dancers. Few if any nurses or teachers or clergy or [fill in the blank]. Just grim faced briefcase toting rats racing for the cheese.

    Your prior posts don't seem to promote fiscal responsibility, rather they show a desire to impose an arbitrary financial cut off point.

    Life's too short, my brother. Lighten up.

  8. The area described in the article would be a good place to try a new approach to housing. On the south side of Delancey, in the blocks near the Williamsburg Bridge, sit vast rundown parking lots. What was there before were normal tenement blocks with normal street life. They were torn down in the quest for "urban renewal" but nothing was ever built. There was a rally down there several months ago to draw attention to the situation.
    I found the following specifics on
    "The story of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area goes back to 1967 when a federal slum clearance program ordered New York City to tear down several tenements on the Lower East Side. Some lots were redeveloped, but five, bounded by Essex, Delancey, Willett and Grand streets, were not."

  9. Well ... it seems the real question here -- the projects -- is getting lost while we dicker over 'who should live in Manhattan.'

    That's not a question I will address -- however, it is clear that the projects have been a disaster for the city and their residents. Rather than integrating people into the established grid of Manhattan, the poor are warehoused in these ugly strongholds which become hotbeds of crime and filth. (It is not unusual for people to urinate in project elevators, or lie passed out in corridors. And violent crime is a commonplace.)

    The UK solved this problem by making subsidized housing decent and not terribly different than any other housing. Manhattan -- and Harlem -- will be much better off when the projects are torn down and re-thought.

  10. You're right. I took off on a tangent. Sorry.

  11. Bob, while I wholehartedly agree that the demolition and repalcement of the projects with a more integrative approach to housing would be best, I'm just not sure that is politically feasible in NYC. If I'm right, it would be better to explore ways to alter the existing project communities to make more aesthetically and functionally relevant to their surrounding communities, versus continuing to fight a battle that cannot be won.

  12. I doubt the NYCHA will be tearing down any of the projects in the foreseeable future. I don't care for the "towers-in-the park" style but they are not necessarily synonymous with crime and poverty. Peter Cooper, Stuyvesant Town, and Riverton Houses are examples of successful large scale housing complexes. Of course those were built for middle income residents. I think the challenge for NYCHA is to make the existing projects as livable and as safe as possible. We have discussed here that NYCHA projects are now reserving 1 out of every 2 vacancies for working families so that is a start in the right direction. I have also noticed more landscaping in certain projects and that has a softening effect. I am sure that people making policy work very hard to find solutions but there are so many pieces of the puzzle to take into account - it is a daunting task.

  13. Bringing this back to HarlemFanatic's comment at 12:14, and to a pragmatic approach:

    There appears to be something like a consensus, at least at the level of think-tanks and academia, that "infill" development that reestablishes the street wall and provides for a mix of uses and incomes would represent an unqualified improvement over the status quo -- both in terms of rehabilitating urban design and allowing for development that can underwrite the financial sustainability of the existing public housing stock.

    So why hasn't it happened already?

    Who, if anyone, actually has the authority to decide?

    And, if we know who is positioned to get the ball rolling, what are the most effective levers to spur them to action?

  14. Here's part of the answer to the "who" question, I think:

    I'd like to make a rather bold suggestion. Ulysses, I think you should seek an interview with John Rhea. It may seem like a tall order, but his office is concerned with establishing credibility with a number of constituencies. We, through you, represent one such constituency.

    Given that you have a demonstrably thoughtful record on these issues, they might just be amenable to having Mr. Rhea answer some questions -- particularly if they are emailed (fairly controlled, from their perspective).

  15. Most here are being intellectually dishonest with themselves & the situation. Harlem's first new affordable housing development was the co-op The Renaissance Bldg @ 116th & Lenox. Lottery driven, they had 4,000+ applicants seeking one of 240 units. I know one lucky person that got picked, I also know a dozen plus just as worthy people that did not. Where do the 3,760+ unlucky in the lottery go? This is typical in Manhattan.

    You don't solve a problem serving a very tiny fraction of those deserving who basically benefited due to "the luck of the draw", that's it. It's entirely "Luck" on how and the person I know who got a 3 bedroom coop in the Renaissance Bldg for $12K up front for the shares, I think the maintenance is now $1600, this it. What should we (society) say to those 3,760+ teachers, cops, social workers, artists, etc. that are worthy but unlucky? Sorry, better luck next time?

    In the case of the Renaissance Bldg, less than 6% of the applying worthy obtained housing. None of you come to terms with the 94+% unlucky yet worthy cops, teachers, and artist. Your arguments are framed as if the public is being served and has access to affordable housing, you choose to be blind to seeing this applies for a tiny lucky percentage, that's it, the rest are SOL. But Government, Society, Politicians, & you need token symbols to point to and act and posture as if the public has access to affordable housing. Yeah, a very tiny tiny but lucky percentage of the public.

    The amount of worthy people that need 'Affordable Housing' is so massive, the process for the lucky few to obtain it so ridiculous (Luck) that it makes no sense to try and solve this problem on a tiny expensive island (Manhattan). The model is ridiculous, the problem unsolvable due to limited land and massive demand.

  16. @Reynolds93:

    And if you had it YOUR way none of them would be there in Manhattan, so how is that better?

    The post was referring to mainly Housing Projects but according to you R.N.s and Police Officers are part of the riffraff too.

    Try sticking to the subject.

  17. I think it is important for any neighborhood to have some housing set aside for mixed levels of income for many reasons. However I see no benefit for a community to provide superblocks of entrenched no income generational welfare that does nothing but create entitlement. There was a time when the projects where a hand up and not a hand out. I know some families who resided in the projects years ago, and they saw it as a temporary measure, a stepping stone, those families through education are now property owners on the free market. That is a legitimate use for the projects. That is not the case any more. There is always the helpless in society that need a new start, but not in Manhattan where that space can be used by tax payers. At the very least there should be a time limit for living in the projects.

  18. Per NYCHA on April 30, 2010 There Were: 135,491 families on the waiting list for Conventional Public Housing. 125,403 families on the waiting list for Section 8 Housing. The turnover rate in calendar year 2009 for NYCHA conventional public housing apartments was 3.21%. The vacancy rate of apartments available for occupancy was 0.49% as of April 6, 2010.

    The economic drag of these families is extensive (food, medical, etc. all covered by the tax payer), their contribution minimal (in keeping the system afloat through any taxes they may pay).

    Per the NYT, "The Bloomberg administration, which has struggled with a seemingly intractable problem of homelessness for years, has paid for more than 550 families to leave the city since 2007, as a way of keeping them out of the expensive shelter system, which costs $36,000 a year per family. All it takes is for a relative elsewhere to agree to take the family in".

    We should scale out a program that's already been in practice on a grand scale. Seems more humane than telling a family they are on a waiting list and should get housing in 20-25 years, no?

  19. And there has been a dramatic rise in homeless individuals and families during the Bloomberg administration.

  20. Sanou's Mum,

    There has been an increase in the homeless and soon-to-be-homeless almost everywhere. That is inevitable during a recession in a capitalist society. To pin that on the Bloomberg administration wreaks of political opportunism, something I would hope we can keep out of this discussion.

  21. I'm a big Bloomberg fan. Truly. But his administration's homeless policies have been a well-documented failure.